Lessons from supply chain leaders

Judd Aschenbrand, my former research director, loved reading the open-ended comments in research reports. They were usually long and all over the map, but if you studied them, he used to say, themes emerge that you might not see in the survey responses. He likened it to the church confessional.

Last week, I went to church in Dallas at the American Supply Chain Summit. There, I had the opportunity to moderate fireside chats with Patricia Marseille, a Disney supply chain executive, and Rochelle Savel, a supply chain executive at Corning.

The ostensible topic for both discussions was leadership, but as it played out the underlying topics were people and resilience, and the two were interrelated with one another.

In fact, people and resilience were the themes of most of the presentations and most of the questions from the audience. A for instance: Roxanne Flanagan, Walgreen’s chief supply chain officer, included a video on how Walgreen’s has integrated people with disabilities, including autism, into its distribution center workforce for some 15 years. Another example: Disney’s Marseille challenged everyone in the room beyond the usual talent pool to expand supply chain talent: She hired a former journalist with no supply chain experience on her team because he was used to digging into the facts and good with documents; she also hired a professional gamer, who brought new technology skills to the job. As Judd would say, it was the confessional.

In fact, I was particularly struck by two interactions. During a presentation by Mark Holloway, the global supply chain leader for Goodyear, Elinor Riggs, a technology VP for J&J, asked how Goodyear is tackling the war for talent given its location in Akron, Ohio. She made the point that supply chain organizations are often located far from sexier locations like Silicon Valley, Cambridge and Austin. Holloway’s response, and it was one that I heard from other presenters, was that it comes down to creating a culture that attracts people and makes them stick. Another presenter made a point of saying that one wouldn’t wish for a pandemic, but the last two plus years have moved internal supply chain discussions and initiatives from technology to people.

Maybe we’ve all come to realize that besides all of the remarkable technologies entering our space, from AI and Machine Learning to robotics, autonomous vehicles and tools for visibility, supply chains are nowhere near lights out. We still rely on people. The trick is identifying those tasks that can be automated, the technologies that can automate them and then upskilling the people who used to be responsible for the mundane into more responsible and engaging positions.

Now, emerging technologies weren’t left out of the conversation. During our chat, Corning’s Savel noted that a global visibility platform that Corning had implemented prior to the pandemic, along with a logistics control tower, were keys to the company’s ability to navigate through disruptions, shutdowns and issues with suppliers. But she too discussed steps Corning took to enable communication and conversations while everyone was working from home. As a shameless plug for my own upcoming event, digital transformation and the people enabling it will be on display at the NextGen Supply Chain Conference, October 17 – 19, at the Chicago Athletic Association hotel. I hope to see you there.

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